Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

If you are listening to this sermon from California or the middle and southern part of Cascadia – Cascadia being that the massive watershed that extends from British Columbia down through Oregon – you have spent a good part of this week underneath an orange and terrifying sky. Folks have described this sky as apocalyptic, as the unveiling of the end of the world. And I get why. The sight would be distressing enough in any year. But then you drop it into 2020 – into the middle of pandemic; into the middle of wildly polarized election; into an economy filled with chaos and loss that we haven’t seen since the end of World War II; into the struggle against police violence and for black dignity – and that orange sky feels like a perverse sacrament, an outward and visible sign of everything that is hurting and broken and wrong.

Underneath that sky, in the middle of all of this turmoil, there is the wee corner of the world that we call Grace Memorial. And in this wee corner, our ministries continue. We continue to worship, to feed the poor, to work towards redeveloping our campus.

And my question for us this morning goes like this: given the enormity of the world’s hurts, do these little things matter?

You don’t have to spend long on Twitter or on TV to encounter folks making that argument about this moment.

Sure, Portland City Council has banned the worst kind of tear gas from our streets, but if a police officer is inclined towards violence they still have rubber bullets and truncheons and other flavours of gas. It doesn’t really matter. Sure, solar panels are nice, but the oil barons are belching smoke into the atmosphere at a pace that we cannot even comprehend and so the forests will keep on burning. It doesn’t really matter. Sure, we could put 80 or 100 units of affordable housing on Grace’s block. But the people living in cars and tents and on the pavement are beyond counting. It doesn’t really matter.

What does Jesus have to say about that?

Today Jesus tells a folk tale about this question. It goes like this.

Once upon a time, there was a man who was heavily in debt. And the person to whom this man was in debt was his boss. He owed his boss ten thousand talents. There are varying estimates as to how much ten thousand talents in today’s dollars, but all of them have a lot of zeroes in them. Folks doing the math reckon that this guy owed his boss somewhere between 3.5 and 9 billion dollars. That’s a lot of talents, an inconceivable amount of money. It would be a defensible paraphrase of Jesus’ story to say that the man owed his boss a gazillion dollars. So, more money than he could pay back in a lifetime, more than he could pay back in ten lifetimes.

The man fell on his face in front of his boss and he made a promise that both of them knew he could not keep: Have patience with me, he said, have patience with me and I’ll pay you back.

What did the boss do then? Did he set up a payment plan? Did he ask for something awful, the way that bosses do sometimes in folk tales? I want your soul? Or I want the life of your first born.

No! The boss forgave the debt in its entirety. He tore up the 4.5 billion dollar promissory note, the pieces of paper fell to the ground like snowy possibility.

The newly forgiven man left high-rise tower where his boss lived, a spring in his step that had not been there in years. I’m free! he sang. Listen birds in the sky, I’m free! Listen trees in the field, I’m free! Listen ground underneath my feet, I’m free! Listen guy I know from work –

But then the man stopped. And looked hard at the guy he knew from work. Wait a minute, he said, Guy from work: you owe me money. You owe me a hundred denarii.

(A hundred denarii, again depending on who you ask, being worth maybe $8700 in today’s dollars.)

The Guy from Work said, Have patience with me. Have patience with me and I’ll pay you back.

This is the same scene that we saw a moment before, except that the man is now in the role of the boss.

No way, he said. You’re going to jail!

And he got out the handcuffs and called the paddy wagon, and things were looking good until his boss came out of the high-rise tower and saw him.

The man stared at his boss in horror. And like a child with his hand in the cookie jar right up to his elbow, he said,

It’s not what it looks like.

And because this is a folk tale gives Jesus gives it an ending that the Brothers Grimm with their love of slapstick violence would approve of. The boss said to his employee:

To the dungeon with you. Where you will be tortured!

The end!

What is the moral of the story?

Here’s one possible answer to that question.

Let’s assume that the boss is God. And the employee – that’s you and me. And we owe this debt to God, we owe God a gazillion dollars. This body to walk through the world: God gave it to us. This mind to think: God gave it to us. This heart to love: God gave it to us. The stuff to use, the money to spend: God gave it to us.

We go to God and we say:

I’ll pay you back, I promise. I just need ‘til the weekend.

But God says:

Forget it. Your debt is forgiven.

It is a cosmic, earth-shaking, impossible act of generosity. A debt that we couldn’t pay back in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes: gone.

Now, in addition to all of the other stuff that God has given us, God has given us one more thing. And that is the opportunity to be generous, to give stuff away, free of charge. To imitate God. Now, the stuff that we have to give away isn’t on God’s scale. God has $4.5 billion to forgive. We’ve got something more like $8700.

But here’s the thing that Jesus sure seems to be saying in this folk tale. Even though what we have got is tiny, even though it is a drop in the proverbial bucket, being generous, giving as we have received: this matters. It matters to God. And it matters for our souls. Not because God will torture us if we don’t – that’s a folk tale ending, God is not in the torture business, God never was – but because there is holy freedom in this generosity.

To go around with clenched fists saying, this is mine and you can’t have any: it distorts our souls, it holds us back from the joy of being people with open hands. There is a kind of torture in selfishness. But we are the ones torturing ourselves.

We have the opportunity to be generous. To create just a little housing in a city that needs it so badly. To create just a little community in a city that needs it so badly. To create just a little beauty in a city that needs it so badly. It’s tiny what we can do, tiny compared with what God has done for us. And it matters. It matters to us, it matters to our neighbours, it matters to God.

This is what Jesus does across his life. He lives under brutal occupation, and maybe he is tempted to say that healing a handful of people doesn’t matter. But he heals them anyway. He lives in a time when hunger is known by so, so many, and maybe he is tempted to say that healing a few doesn’t matter. But he heals them anyway. He lives in a time, just like now, when there is no shortage of religious authorities insisting that God is petty and small, and maybe he is tempted to say that telling a story of freedom doesn’t matter. But he tells the story anyway.

Here’s the thing about this folk tale that Jesus tells us today. Jesus gives it an unhappy ending. And in doing so, Jesus is inviting us to rewrite it, to create our own happy ending.

Imagine.

The man comes out the front door of the high-rise door. I’m free! he sings. Listen birds in the sky, I’m free! Listen trees in the field, I’m free! Listen ground underneath my feet, I’m free! Listen guy I know from work… who owes me money.

The two of them look at each other for a second.

And then the man says.

Forget it. Your debt is forgiven.

And The Guy from Work smiles and says thank you. And they he goes on his way. And maybe, he forgives someone else, and maybe they forgive someone else, and maybe they forgive someone else. Maybe this act of generosity begins a virtuous cycle, a holy cycle. But we don’t know about that. Because the camera stays on the first man, the man who owed his boss a gazillion dollars and now owes him nothing. The man who a second ago, was owed $8700, and now is owed nothing.

You’d think it would sting to be out that money. $8700 isn’t $4.5 billion. But nor is it nothing. But the man realizes that in forgiving this debt, there is, somehow, impossibly, even more spring in his step than there was a second ago. He goes on his way whistling a tune. He goes on his way, free.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20


Back when I was first working as a stagehand at the start if the 1990s, I had a colleague whose driver’s license said Michael but whom we all knew as Woody. I don’t know if Woody liked being called Woody, I don’t know if it was a name that he would have chosen for himself. In fact the evidence suggests that it was not preferred name.

The way that touring Rock and Roll shows work is that there is a core crew that travels with the band and then there is a local crew, people who live in the city where the band is playing and who supplement the travelling stagehands. And the two crews meet at the beginning of the day on the loading dock, everyone tells everyone else their names. Hi, I’m Martin. I’m Chris. I’m Sarah.

Woody and I were on the local crew. And at the start of the day, Woody would say, Hi, I’m Mike. And it didn’t matter. Within half an hour, everyone on the road crew was calling him Woody.

The lore, the rumour, is that the origin of Woody’s nickname was not a charitable one. That he was so called because his head was thick, like wood. If that’s true, then I understand why he wanted to be Mike. And I regret, I am sorry for not honouring the name that he wanted to be called.

In the Gospel, there is this guy named Simon. But somewhere along the way, folks start calling him Rocky or the Rock. In most English translations of the Bible he is called Peter. And because Peter is just a plain-old name in English, we can forget that this is a nickname, laden with meaning. Other languages don’t have that forgetting problem: if you are reading the New Testament in French, the name Pierre is also a noun that means rock. In Biblical Greek, Petros means rock. And in Aramaic, which Jesus and Simon speak to each other, Simon’s word/name is Kepha, which is sometime transliterated in English Bibles as Cephas. In other words, in the scene that we just heard, Jesus says to Simon:

You are Kepha. And on this kepha I will build my church.

Some English translations try to preserve that. They have Jesus say:

You are Rock. And on this rock I will build my church.

So here is the question. Much as Woody had a driver’s license that says Mike, the Rock has a driver’s license that says Simon. And I wonder: does the Rock feels the same as Woody? Does he wish that people would call him by his real name?

I am asking this question in seriousness. It may seem like it has a thoroughly obvious answer: today, so, so many churches are called St. Rock’s, St. Peter’s, and we know that the Rock went on to be the first Pope, the founder of the church. But I want to suggest that the answer might not be obvious in Jesus’ time. And might be especially unclear if we didn’t have the Gospel of Matthew. Because this is the only Gospel in which we hear Jesus use the name Rock in the way that we just heard him do.

Remember where else and how else we hear about rocks and stones in the Gospel. Rocks are things that you trip over, they are stumbling blocks. Rocks are things that are tied around your neck as punishment; here is the millstone. Rocks are things that you hurl at people as a means of execution; here is the woman who is caught in adultery. Rocks are things that you would never give to your child when the child wants bread. And – remember we heard this story just last month – rocky soil is where the seed doesn’t grow, where the word is received with enthusiasm but the hearer falls away as soon as hardship or persecution shows up. Given what we know about the Rock, about Peter, and how the story of the passion goes, it would be very easy to read that as a shot at him:

You are the Rock, the one without depth, the one who grabs the seed for a moment and then lets it go and runs when things get hard.

So, we can well imagine that in this moment when Jesus calls Simon Rock, that Simon’s shoulders slump. This is the nickname that he has been trying to shake forever. And he thought that, with Jesus and with his new friends, he had found a community that could love him as he is, that could honour his real name, that didn’t need make themselves feel bigger by tearing him down, that wouldn’t call him Rock.

Jesus says,

You are Rock.

And Simon tries to be a good sport, he tries to keep on smiling. But you can see the pain in his eyes.

But then Jesus keeps on going. He does something that Simon totally doesn’t expect. He reinvents his nickname, he gives it a whole new meaning.

You are Rock. And on this rock I will build my church.

I imagine Simon standing there stunned. Wait a minute, he thinks to himself, wait a minute. I always thought that to be a rock is to be thick or dangerous or incapable of growing things. But Jesus is talking as though to be a rock is to be strong and solid and stable, to be that from which everything else rises.

What if? What if what Jesus does for Simon today is something that he also does for you and for me? Maybe there is a name that you have been carrying for a while, for years. It could be something as literal as an unchosen and unwelcome nickname. Or that name could be something a little more like a story, a story about how you are unlovable or a bumbler or always saying the wrong thing or never meeting the standard that everyone else meets, a story about your deep and secret wound.

And when you meet Jesus, he says your old name out loud. But unlike everyone else who has discovered your wound and named it, he uses your name not to hurt you but, rather, to set you free. He shows you how your hurt is what allows you to be empathetic, how your failure is what allows you to understand your neighbour, how your rejection is what allows you to love.

You are the Rock, says Jesus, and on this rock I will build my church.

Simon, who just a second ago felt like he had been punched in the guts, starts laughing out loud, laughing with joy.

Yes, he says. Yes! I’m the rock.

And all of his friends start laughing too, the way that friends do sometimes even when they don’t quite understand the joke. The slap their sides and howl and tears roll down their cheeks and one of them says:

Does anyone know why we’re laughing?

Maybe Jesus is thinking of this moment, of this sudden and free and joyous laughter, of the Rock, when he says:

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 9, 2020

Lessons:

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

 

Peace Be Still.

Jesus in the middle of the storm.

Jesus in the middle of the storm is a story that we hear six times across the Gospels.

Maybe, way back when, this was two stories, two encounters with Jesus, one in which Jesus sleeps in the stern of the boat while the storm thunders all around – there are three stories more or less like that preserved in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and then another in which Jesus walks on the water – those are in Matthew, Mark, and John. Or maybe the story or encounter was one in the beginning, and as memory shifted the way that memory does across the years, the way that stories do as they are told around the campfire, it divided into two strands.

Regardless, Jesus in the middle of the storm is a story that the Gospels tell us six times. It has that sixfold telling in common with the story that we heard last week, the one that we sometimes call the story of the loaves and the fishes. This repetition suggests that Jesus’ first friends and then the early church reckoned that these encounters mattered deeply to understanding Jesus and to following Jesus.

In Jesus’ life, there is a malleable and a permeable border between the literal and the metaphorical. Jesus does things and says things and things happen to him that are real and symbol at the same time. So, last week, we saw Jesus feed hungry people. And way before we look for anything heady or spiritual in this miracle, let’s name and honour the earthy reality that when people are hungry, Jesus feeds them. As Jesus’ followers, we are called to do the same, to feed people when they are hungry.

And beside and within that intensely literal act of service, there are layers upon layers of metaphor. When we are with Jesus, the story tells us, we find creativity, generosity, possibility, compassion, fecundity, the absence of limitation, holy surprise. We are fed in so, so many ways.

This week – Jesus in the storm – is the same. At the story’s most basic level, there is something primal taking place. Heavy rain, high waves, a hard wind, lightning and thunder. Many of Jesus’ followers, most of Jesus’ followers, fish for a living. And if they are afraid of the storm, you know that it’s a bad one. This is a little bit like when you are on a plane and the turbulence gets intense. When that happens, I always look at the flight attendants: if they don’t seem nervous, I’m not going to get nervous, their calmness means that this is merely an unpleasant experience rather than a dangerous one. If they look afraid, by contrast, I’m going to start putting the finishing touches on my will.

And this week, the fishers, those who have logged hundreds or even thousands of hours out on the water, are afraid. Herb O’Driscoll, the wonderful Irish-Canadian preacher, has joked that Jesus’ calmness in the storm, whether that calmness takes the form of sleeping or of casually strolling on the surface of the lake, is proof that Jesus doesn’t fish for a living. Jesus, unlike the disciples, doesn’t know enough to be afraid.

The storm rages. This intense storm, this terrifying storm, this dangerous storm, this storm that may end in drowning rages. This is the sort of awful experience during which someone like you or me might call out God’s name.

God, help me. Please.

And from the deck of the ship, as we call out to God, what do we discover then? We discover that God is there, that Jesus is there. God is not watching from some distant cloud or castle or mountaintop. God is there in the middle of the storm. We see God walking on the waves, being pushed up and down by the swells, now rising, now falling, never breaking his stride, never losing his balance.

This is good news and hard news. It is very good news indeed to discover in the storm that God is not somewhere else. Alleluia.

And it is hard news to discover that God being with us doesn’t mean that there is no storm. The storm rages anyway.

And the storm – here is that malleable and permeable border between the literal and the metaphorical– in addition to being a very concrete and real and dangerous thing, is also this archetypal image for chaos, for uncertainty, for the absence of control, for volatility, for fear.

God is present in these things. And the storm rages anyway.

If the Gospels were a novel – they aren’t, there are a thousand and one ways in which the Gospels resist being classified as a modern book – if the Gospels were a novel, then Peter would be the character whose role is to stand in for you and me. As a child, I adored Agatha Christie’s mysteries and, in particular, I loved her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. And the Poirot books work in significant part because of Hastings, Poirot’s friend and assistant and sometimes biographer, the guy who is amazed where the reader would be amazed, confused where the reader would be confused, who does and says the thing that the reader would do or say.

Peter serves much the same function in the Gospel. At the transfiguration, he says what you or I might say: Let’s build houses and stay here forever. When Jesus says that he will be crucified, Peter, like you or me, takes him aside and says: Lord, you have to stop talking that way. When Jesus nears the end, Peter is the one who swears that he will never abandon Jesus and who then flees in fear – that’s something that I might do and maybe that you might do, no matter how much we wanted to stay.

And today, in the middle of the chaos, in the middle of the storm, Peter is the one who sees Jesus walking on the water, dancing on the surging waves. Peter has one of those bracelets on his wrist that says WWJD: What would Jesus do? This is the question of his life. And he sees that the answer to the question What would Jesus do in the storm? is that Jesus would walk on the waves.

And so Peter kicks one leg over the side of the boat and then the other. He puts his weight down on the water. And for a little while, it works. Peter walk for several steps, getting nearer to Jesus, rising and falling with the swells as he does. But then he notices the danger, the impossibility, the absurdity of what he is doing. I don’t know if you have had the experience of learning to ride a bike, the grown up or older child who was helping you letting go and giving you a push, and you are able to ride exactly as long as until you don’t think about how your balance works and how much landing on the asphalt would hurt.

I think that something similar happens here. Peter starts thinking about what he is doing. And instantly, his leg punches through the surface of the lake as though he were breaking through ice. He is in up to his thigh, suddenly soaked. And sinking.

Lord, save me! he says.

And right away – Jesus does not leave Peter in his fear – Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him.

Oh, Peter, Jesus says. And I imagine that there is a big smile on his face. You almost did it. You of little faith.

And then the two of them get back into the boat, Jesus holding the now sopping wet Peter by the arm. Does Peter walk a little bit on the way back? Or does he kind of half swim? Or does Jesus carry him?

When they get back in, the storm stops. There is peace. And the fishers, they fall down on the suddenly still deck of their boat and worship Jesus.

Truly, they say, truly you are the son of God.

What does this end to the story mean? I’m not sure. But I do know that somehow it is right, that it is true. That in this moment when the real and the metaphorical intersect in the storm, Jesus comes to us and there is peace. Peace be still. I think that this moment is what Richard Rohr is talking about what he says that folks who are in deep communion with God find this okayness with life. Not because the storm doesn’t happen, not because they never experience grief, loss, unfairness, or suffering – they totally do. But because they know in their bones that Jesus is there with us as the storm rages, and that Jesus, always, always, brings us safely home.

 

Seventh Sunday of Pentecost by The Rev. Corbet Clark

July 26, 2020

Lessons:

Genesis 28:10-19a

Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

View You Tube video of the sermon here.

 

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.

The Sunday readings always present a challenge and an opportunity. Sometimes they’re very closely related, and you can easily see a theme emerging. Other times it’s harder to find a connection among them. So for a preacher, it’s easiest just to pick one reading (usually the Gospel) to focus on, which is what I, in the interests of efficiency, usually do.

But this morning I’d like to see how we might draw on all three of the readings to try to make sense of our current predicament.

The parable that Jesus tells provides the framework for the predicament: God has planted the world – our world, God’s creation – with good seeds, but somehow the fields are full of weeds.

This will not surprise any gardener, and it must have touched a nerve with his peasant audience. You plant a vegetable garden in carefully prepared soil, and before you know it, the weeds are outcompeting what you planted. Then it becomes a constant chore to dig up and eradicate the weeds before they take over the garden and you lose what you planted. If you’re careless and allow the weeds to grow they take from the soil valuable nutrients that your vegetables need, so any self-respecting gardener works hard to control the weeds.

But this is not how God’s garden works, according to Jesus. Instead, God lets the weeds grow, until the final harvest, when weed and wheat will be separated. As with many of Jesus’ parables, this must have left his listeners scratching their heads. It doesn’t seem to be good cultivation technique. In fact, it seems almost irresponsible.

But Jesus is addressing the world as it is. The world, our world, is a messy place, which all his listeners also understood. God created the world and everything in it, in beauty and goodness, but it seems to us to be filled with wickedness and sorrow. Paul acknowledges this in Romans: all of creation is in “bondage to decay” and is “groaning in labor pains,” waiting for God to redeem it.

We can relate. Disease, violence, bigotry and hatred, poverty and economic anxiety. The sufferings of our present time seem almost overwhelming, and the evils of the world seem to come from many sources – from the outright wickedness of some, from the indifference of others, from willful ignorance of yet others, and from our own failing to do what we know is right. We find ourselves uncertain what to do, and we are afraid.

But Paul counsels his followers not to fall back into slavery to fear. It seems to me that much of what makes me angry about the world today is people – all of us – acting out of fear. We fear disease and harm so we act selfishly. We fear the loss of our familiar ways so we refuse to adapt to necessary changes. We fear those who are different from us – by ethnic background, religion, politics, class, ability – so we attribute to them evil motives, when they, too, are acting out of fear of the unknown. And so fear causes all of us to spiral downward together into hopelessness and inaction.

Jesus has a different take on our situation. Don’t worry about the weeds and focus instead on the coming harvest, Jesus suggests. It is in hope that we are saved, Paul says. Hope IS our salvation. Not a blind hope that ignores the continual stream of bad news but a hope for the full revelation of God’s rule.  A hope that even in an age of anxiety looks for signs that God is present and working among us.

Our ancestor Jacob spends much of his time in Genesis fleeing from one place to another out of fear of what may happen to him. At one point he finds himself in the middle of nowhere and has a visionary encounter with God. He receives a promise of God’s future blessing on him and his family, a promise of God’s presence and protection, a promise so expansive and without limit that it might have seemed absurd. But Jacob finds hope in it. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” he says in wonder. That’s a good mantra for us to repeat at this moment: Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.

If I pay attention to the signs of hope around me, I may just be able to perceive the reality of God’s kingdom. Even in the midst of a life-crushing pandemic.

I live in a suburban neighborhood where we don’t really know our neighbors. But that has changed since the shutdowns of the last several months, as people are more at home and we’ve struck up conversations outside. On the Fourth of July something took place that we had never experienced before on our block, in our 30+ years here. We gathered in the street, from small children to old folks, pooled our fireworks and put on a display for the enjoyment of those sitting on lawn chairs on the sidewalk.

Not really a big deal, but I found in that evening of blazing light and explosive noise and laughter, and children screaming, and applause, a sign of the presence of God’s new community of life and peace and joy. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

Hope, Paul says, is the assurance of things not seen. And currently we don’t see much in this world to make us confident that God is in charge, or that the groaning of all creation will soon end, or that we will all soon be able to join together to solve our mutual dilemmas.

But we, people of faith, are called to search out and find hope in the world, even when it seems outlandish. We are called to find it even in the smallest moments and in unlikely places, and to proclaim it to others. We are called to act as if we had confidence that God’s fields of wheat will soon come to maturity and be harvested, and that the bounty of God’s creation will be shared with everyone.

Amen

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

July 5, 2020

Lessons:

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

A reflection with four stanzas or, four movements. Let’s call the four Joy, Love, Confusion, and – because there is a symmetry in beginning where we ended – Joy again.

One. Joy.

Rejoice greatly, says the prophet Zechariah. These words are not phrased as a suggestion nor as an invitation. They are phrased as a command. Rejoice greatly, says the prophet speaking on God’s behalf. And maybe that suggests that joy is a holy act and a subversive act.

Dan Savage, the wonderful advice columnist and activist and champion of GLBTQ rights, has said homophobia and transphobia and all of their cousin phobias can more or less deal with gay folks and trans folks hanging out in seedy clubs and doing seedy things in the seedy darkness. But that what these phobias and their owners cannot deal with it, what really rots their socks, is gay and trans folks finding everyday joy out in the daylight: GLBTQ folks going about their lives, raising kids, washing dishes, riding bicycles, being startled by the beauty of sunsets, the list goes on. That is because it is in these everyday acts of joy that we discover our full humanity and the full humanity of our neighbour.

Similarly, in this season of moral awakening, a season in which we are, as a culture, are thinking deeply about racial justice, we are hearing an important reminder. And that is this: Yes, listen to stories about black pain. But also, equally importantly, listen and celebrate stories of black joy. Absolutely, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. But also read Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. Black joy matters for the same reason that GLBTQ joy matters. Because grief and suffering are part of being alive. But they are not the whole story. You need joy to have the whole story, to be fully human. When we honour our neighbour’s joy we honour their humanity, we see the image of God in them.

So rejoice greatly. And pay attention and celebrate as your neighbour rejoices greatly.

Two. Love.

The Lord is loving to everyone

says the Psalmist

Compassion is all over God’s works.

As the feminist theologian, Ellen Clark-King says, God’s love is promiscuous. I adore Ellen’s language for a lot of reasons, one of those reasons being that it reminds us that the love of God is neither safe nor neat. Rather God’s love is transgressive and even dangerous.

Sometimes we try to force God into safe and neat categories. We tell God: you belong in this building, but not outside; you belong with these people, but not with those; this is where, God, your holiness is properly contained. But God won’t go along with our plans. We are like children trying to do that thing where you try to hold water cupped in your hands. Try as you might, God’s water runs out. Not all of it runs out – your hands remain wet and holy – but so does everything else.

Now, a major caveat before we go any further. The promiscuousness of God’s love, the go-everywhereness of God’s living water: this is not some cosmic moral relativism, where God is totally okay with you and me no matter how much we harm creation or harm our neighbour or harm ourselves. No. It is precisely because God loves you and me and loves us beyond limit that God confronts us in our sin.

Now, I realise that sin is a loaded word, so let me be clear that when I use that word I am not referring to anything as trivial as masturbation or listening to rock and roll.

Rather, what I mean by the word sin is basically the same thing that I mean by the word:

selfishness.

More on that in a second.

God loves you. And God wants you and me to be allies with God in sharing God’s promiscuous love, to participate in the compassion that is all over God’s works, in letting the waters of justice flow everywhere. If we allow it to be, if we put down our selfishness, our efforts to hoard God’s love, this might just be good news.

Three. Confusion.

I do not understand my own actions.

says Paul

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Paul has a number of really famous lines. This particular one probably makes the top ten. Paul never says what the thing he hates is, never names what he elsewhere calls the thorn in his side, and so he has left room for generations of people to identify their own struggle in his struggle. You will meet alcoholics who are convinced that Paul was an alcoholic, compulsive gamblers who are convinced that Paul was a compulsive gambler, gay men who are convinced that Paul spent his life stuck in the closet.

This is not, by the way, a deficiency in anyone’s reading of scripture, nor is it a deficiency in Paul’s writing. Rather this is the genius of Paul. Whatever your struggle is, whatever your sin or your selfishness is, Paul is talking to you.

Because I don’t know about you, but there sure are times when I don’t understand my own actions, when I do they very thing that I hate.

I don’t understand why it is that I study and pray with the Gospel and yet I tolerate what Dorothy Day called the dirty, rotten system. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in my neighbour must sleep on the street. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in which my neighbour’s encounters with the police are regularly terrifying. I don’t understand – and I speak these words as the owner of shiny new iPhone – why I tolerate dirty, rotten the system in which my neighbour who built that iPhone is working in conditions straight out of the horrors of a Dickens novel.

I don’t understand why anyone tolerates a dirty, rotten system that is more or less okay with a pile of more than a hundred thousand bodies from COVID-19 so that we can tell stories of facile economic optimism.

Just like Paul, I am hurting. Just like Paul, I am confused.

Four. Joy.

This is where we began.

The Son of Man came eating and drinking,

says Jesus,

and they say,

Look,

a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!

This is one of my favourite things that Jesus ever says in scripture. This is the moment when Jesus reveals that likes going to parties so much that his critics give him heat for it. This is the moment when, all of those oil paintings and sculptures of super-serious Jesus notwithstanding, we discover that Jesus loves wine and bread and being with you and being alive.

Jesus is a party animal.

Amen.

This is not a triviality. Because joy, delight, curiosity, wonder, playfulness – they will change the world. The dirty rotten system that I was talking about a second ago – the system of sin and selfishness – cannot deal with joy. Because joy asks it dangerous questions.

The system relies on the God damn lie that our neighbours are less than human, that they are something less than the very image of God. But joy will have none of that. In sharing a party, in sharing in the holiness of a meal, joy sees us bonded together in delight. Our mutual humanity becomes inescapable, undeniable.

The system relies on the God damn lie that the exploitation of the earth, of its creatures, of our fellow human beings is the price of admission for a healthy economy. But joy laughs at that. And the system, just like the devil, withers before laughter. Joy knows about mutual thriving and vitality without exploitation.

The relies on the God damn lie that that it is inevitable, that it is like the sun rising in the morning, that there is no way that things could be different. But joy, delight, playfulness ask that childish and wonderful question:

Why?

Why do things have to be as they are?

Joy dreams of another world.

Jesus is at the table. There is a feast all around him: bread and wine and more. He is there with the tax collectors; with the sinners; with the people you saw sleeping on the street, homeless no more; with the immigrants, with the guy wearing the MAGA hat – who is seriously confused as to what he is doing at this party, but who is starting to have fun in spite of himself – with the trans kid, looking fierce and fabulous in her new dress; with your lonely neighbour; with everyone.

If you want, with you. There is a place for you at the table.

Jesus is drinking and eating and telling and listening to stories and laughing hard.

There is joy. Joy enough for everyone.

 

 

 

The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost by the Reverend Martin Elfert

June 28

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4,15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

 

 

Just before the climax of a great many books and movies and plays, there is a speech that changes everything.

The speech comes at halftime at the big game or on the eve of the final battle or as the ragtag bunch of misfits are about to descend into the cave or the dungeon or the sewer and face the monster. Morale is low, our protagonists are figuratively and sometimes literally on their knees. And the speech – given by the coach, the queen, the least socially awkward of the misfits – is what allows them to get up and continue.

Jesus gives a speech like that today. There are twelve people in Jesus’ gang of misfits, twelve people plus Jesus himself to make a Messiah’s Dozen. Let’s imagine that you and I are each one of the twelve. Jesus gathers us in the locker room – if you’re following along at home, we’re at the very beginning of Chapter Ten in Matthew’s version of this story – and he stands up on one of the benches, he takes a breath, and he proceeds to give us a speech so alarming and strange and beautiful that it would get a lesser coach fired, fired even before he stepped down back onto the locker room floor.

The speech begins this way, with two instructions:

First, Jesus says, you have authority. You have authority to cast out demons and to heal everything and everyone and to raise the dead.

Maybe we look at each in confusion. Do we have that authority? These kind of seem like varsity level miracles. But before anyone can put their hand up to ask a clarifying question, Jesus keeps on going.

Second, do not get ready. Don’t take money, don’t take a change of clothes, leave your smart phones at home.

Now, if any of you were Boy or Girl Scouts you will know that even though the speech has barely begun, Baden Powell is audibly grinding his teeth right now. Do not be prepared, Jesus says. Not even a little bit.

Unprepared, Jesus says, you are to go. You are to leave this building, go outside, go into the community, and there you are to proclaim the good news. You are to say:

The kingdom of heaven

has come near.

Now, if folks welcome you, let your peace be upon them. But if they don’t welcome you…

And maybe some of us start rubbing our hands together now, because if Jesus has given us the authority to heal and cast out demons and raise the dead, then Jesus must also be giving us the power to destroy anyone who crosses us. We’re waiting for him to give us laser vision and Spiderman webs enough strength to lift someone in the air and huck them into next week. We are going to mop the floor with these suckers.

If folks don’t welcome you, Jesus says, then clean off your shoes. Shake the dust off of them. And then keep on going. There will be judgment. But that is God’s work. Not yours.

And then Jesus keeps on going:

You are going to be handed over, Jesus says – handed over meaning being put into the back of the truck or the train or into the room without windows, the bolt in the door sliding hard into place behind you. Handed over meaning that control over your life belongs to someone else. You will be beaten and dragged before the authorities.

And then Jesus repeats the instruction:

Do not get ready. Do not be prepared. You might want to prepare a defence, but don’t.

You don’t need to. The Spirit of your Father will speak through you.

Do not be afraid, Jesus says.

But then he adds something that, maybe, sounds less than reassuring.

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, nothing is secret that will not be known.

Again we look at each other: Nothing? Including that time that I…

Jesus, Is this good news?

And Jesus says: Do not be afraid.

You might think I have come to bring peace. I haven’t. I have come to bring brass knuckles, a gun, a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. If there is a relationship in which one person has power over another, I am going to turn that into a fight.

This is the part of the speech that changes everything in which Jesus’ voice is getting louder, his gestures more animated, the spit leaving his holy lips with greater velocity.

Take up your cross.

Take it up. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.

And then, after all of that, here comes the climax of the speech. Jesus says this part quietly.

Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones – they will never lose their reward.

These are the orders. This is the end of the speech.

This speech is alarming and strange and beautiful. It is so, so confusing. And here at the end, it is so, so simple.

Could it possibly be that simple?

Could it be that the test for whether or not you and I are following the Gospel is really as simple as the question: Did we give a cup of cold water to the little ones? Did we give a cup of cold water to the ones who thirst?

Jesus steps down off the bench and walks out of the room. He leaves us there with the echo of his words. Jesus has given the speech that changes everything. And now. Now you and I have to decide if we will do as he has told us.